What Does the Church Bless When It Blesses Gay Couples?

by Juan Oliver

The question, "What does the church bless when it blesses same-sex couples?" might better be phrased, "Whom do we bless?" And the short answer is, "We bless God."

The two lovers, Jim and Peter, had asked me to dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant near San Francisco's Castro district. A mutual friend put us in touch, and it was not long before we were meeting and greeting over hummus and baba ganoush.

"We were wondering if we can get married," they asked. In my role as an Episcopal priest in California in the early 1990s, I had to tell them, "Well, no, I'm not allowed to do that.… But first,"

I went on quickly, "tell me about yourselves. How did you meet?" And they unraveled their story: tentative early dates followed by an intense mutual fascination, and now, three years later, a sense that they were in this for the long haul.

"But why a service?" I questioned them.

"We are finding that this stuff of loving each other is kind of holy, and we'd like our families and friends to witness and support it."

"Holy?" I pressed, and they proceeded to talk about learning to love each other; about how their home had become a focal point for a wide community of friends; how in their love for each other they had begun to discover God at work-a transcendence beyond themselves and their daily concerns.

By the time the baklava came, their hands had found one another's and they were staring longingly at each other. I cut to the chase, unable to say anything else: "Well, I would be honored to thank God for your relationship."

A long silence ensued as they fought back tears. They had not dared think that this would be possible: thanking God for their relationship. But we did just that several months later, in a park in San Francisco.

Scott as Kali, 2003. Collage on paper, 9 1/2" x 10".

Whom do we bless?

The question, "What does the church bless when it blesses same-sex couples?" might better be phrased, "Whom do we bless?" And the short answer is, "We bless God." But why bless God? Aren't we the ones in need of blessing? Isn't blessing something that comes down from God to us-a kind of metaphysical fairy dust?

What does it mean to bless?

Our idea of blessing originates in the Jewish tradition, where blessing is a prayer of thanks and praise that ascends to God. Jewish blessing (berakah) begins by praising God for what God has done: for example, the blessing at table over the bread simply says, "Blessed are you, our Lord, Ruler of the Universe, for you make grain to spring forth from the earth." A more complex blessing, over the fourth cup of wine at the Passover seder, blesses God for the fruit of the vine and the yield of the fields, and ends with: "Have pity…on Israel your people … and build Jerusalem, the city of holiness, in our days." This blessing exhibits two distinct parts: thanking and praising God, and invoking God's action (to build Jerusalem).

The same double structure of blessing is found in Christian worship, in prayers such as the Exultet at the Easter vigil, the blessing of water at baptism, and the Great Thanksgiving in the Eucharist. It is also present in the nuptial blessing in the marriage rite: "Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ.… By the power of your Holy Spirit, pour out the abundance of your blessing upon [this couple], …defend them, … lead them, …" etc. (Book of Common Prayer, page 430)

All of these Christian and Jewish blessings have a similar structure. First we bless God for being God, for creating and redeeming the world, and for the creature or relationship before us: bread, wine, light, water, a loving couple. Then we ask or invoke God's grace and blessing upon them. Thus blessing comes full circle: we praise God, and we ask God to shower us with grace. In the western Christian tradition we have often shortened the structure to include only the second part: "May Almighty God bless you, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"-forgetting to bless God first.

Why would we bless God for gay and lesbian couples?

It is clear from the nature of blessing that we cannot bless God for something that is awful, sinful, or degenerate. Our blessings acknowledge God's loving presence in creation and redemption, and so it is not surprising to discover that people who cannot accept same-sex love cannot then bend their minds around the idea of a "same-sex blessing." To them, such relationships, committed and faithful though they may be, cannot be a reason for praise and thanksgiving.

Is a same-sex blessing a marriage, ritually speaking? If in marriage we are blessing God for the heterosexuality of the couple, the answer must be no. If in marriage we are blessing God for the commitment of the couple in love and faithfulness, the answer might well be yes.

But in spite of the fact that some Christians feel this way, many Christian congregations have begun to thank God in public celebration for same-sex relationships. If you delve into their reasoning, it turns out that this is because they see all loving and faithful relationships as manifestations of the love and faithfulness of God.

And who blesses?

It seems to me that, for these celebrations to take place, two different sets of people need to find reason to bless God. First, the couple must have a sense that this is "holy stuff" and move toward a decision to gather friends and family to celebrate it. They will be wanting, especially, to make a public celebration, since liturgy is by its nature social and public.

As an analysis of liturgical prayer quickly shows, the subject of the church is "us"-the congregation, as local instance of the church. The congregation, then, must also wish to bless God for this relationship, even when only a few congregants know the couple; that is, the congregation must in some way see the same-sex union as manifesting the love and faithfulness of God insofar as it is committed and faithful. We do not bless God for gayness any more (or less) than we bless God for straightness. We bless God for faithful love.

Is this marriage?

The history of the development of the marriage rite is fascinating and full of variations, from the ear-liest fertility prayer over a bride to prayers at the door of the church-and, eventually, when the rite took on legal import, declarations of free intent, vows, and the declaration by the minister that the couple is legally wedded. Anglican bishop and author Kenneth Stevenson has pointed out that the unchanging core running through the history of marriage as a rite is twofold: commitment and blessing. The couple in some way is understood to have made a commitment (vows or no vows), and therefore we bless God, invoking God's grace upon the couple to be able to live out that commitment.

Same-sex blessings can exist as a valid and significant church ritual, regardless of their legal import. Whether or not the union is legally recognized, the church must ask itself, "Is a same-sex blessing a marriage, ritually speaking?" If in marriage we are blessing God for the heterosexuality of the couple, the answer must be no. If in marriage we are blessing God for the commitment of the couple in love and faithfulness, the answer might well be yes.

Juan Oliver is an Episcopal priest and director of Mercer School of Theology in Garden City, New York.


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